- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 20, 2004

PINEY POINT, Md. — Researchers hope the future of the Chesapeake Bay lies within an inexpensive crab nursery on the banks of St. George Creek.

The nursery on the southern tip of Maryland is an expansion of a lab run by the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute in Baltimore. Crabs harvested there are put in coolers, then transported to two breeding nooks in Chesapeake Bay tributaries.

The researchers and crabbers hope a network of watermen-run nurseries, filled with little more than gurgling tanks, will someday pump “teenager” crabs into tributaries around the Bay. The migrating crabs will then merge with indigenous crabs in a deep channel that runs the length of the Bay. Three months later, those that survive would be sexually mature and ready to breed. If the process works, it could help slow or stop the collapse of the Chesapeake Bay’s blue crab population.

The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, a partner in the hatchery consortium, has found that spawning-age populations of Bay crabs fell 80 percent in the 1990s. Though the harvests have stabilized, they are still below modern averages.

The partnership, which includes the institute’s Center of Marine Biotechnology, must achieve several goals before it can be considered a success.

First, researchers need solid answers about how well their lab-hatched crabs are surviving and reproducing in the wild, said Yonathan Zohar, the center’s director.

The center has hatched and tagged 100,000 crabs, several generations worth, in the past three years in a lab on the north side of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. The project has successfully bred the finicky crabs year-round and guided them through eight stages of larval development before they grow claws and are big enough for release.

The project also includes an unprecedented “tagged release” of crabs, officials say. Japan hatches thousands of crabs every year but doesn’t tag or recapture them for research, Mr. Zohar said.

Ecologists at the Smithsonian center and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, a consortium partner, release and study the crabs in the Western Shore’s Rhode River and in the York River of Virginia.

Researchers are finding out that the lab crustaceans so far are growing to be healthy adults, with a survival rate of 20 percent to 30 percent after they’re pitched into the Chesapeake Bay. Their wild peers survive at a rate of less than 1 percent.

The federal government is expressing confidence in the project. The consortium, which also includes North Carolina State University and the University of Southern Mississippi, gets $2 million a year from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

But more crabs are needed to get answers that could predict how feasible a network of nurseries would be, Mr. Zohar said.

He said ecologists think about 200,000 crabs a year are needed, in part, because only a fraction of those released can be recaptured for study.

The crabs, coddled since birth in sterile lab tanks and an artificial sealike cocktail, are thriving in the water pumped from St. George’s Creek. And the nursery is affordable because few controls are on the water, and few staffers are needed because the crabs are beyond the vulnerable larval stages.

Mr. Zohar does not yet know exactly how much it would cost to run a network of nurseries. The budget of each would largely depend on its size. About 9,000 crabs already have grown and graduated from there since the summer.

Last year, the hatchery program released 60,000 crabs. Next year, with the help of Piney Point, it will double that, said crab nutritionist Odi Zmora.

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